There are few more convincing distractions than in NCAA tournament basketball, and after the postseason was canceled last March due to the coronavirus pandemic, many of the best players in women’s basketball are hungry for the bright lights on the big stage. Your passion for the game will become our own for at least the next few weeks as we delve into the glory and heartbreak of the bracket.
Before the tournament kicks off in San Antonio on March 21st, here are some keys to understanding the past season in women’s college basketball.
The full extent of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic is unknown – but enormous.
It is impossible to exaggerate how much the pandemic has shaped the college basketball season for women. At least nine games were canceled this month due to coronavirus health and safety protocols. Just about every top program has missed games due to contact tracing or positive virus testing, meaning most teams did not play all of the games.
In December, the New York Times reported that there had been at least 6,629 cases of coronavirus in college sports. It’s hard to know how many athletes and employees have tested positive since then because the NCAA doesn’t track test results. However, at least one basketball player, Vanderbilt’s Demi Washington, learned she had acute myocarditis, which doctors believed was a side effect of the coronavirus.
Blue chip programs still rule, but more of the others are finally getting a real shot at the title.
Six of the top 10 teams in The Associated Press poll have won at least one title. Only two have never been to a Final Four. But the high rankings from perennial competitors like Stanford, Baylor, Louisville and, yes, UConn obscure the fact that there’s a lot more level playing field at the top of the game than it has been in recent years, such as the split votes for the # 1 spot . (UConn is in first place with 22 votes, Stanford is in second place with five votes, and North Carolina State is in third place with two votes.)
UConn is the only team in the top 25 with just one loss, but the Huskies played a relatively simple schedule. There is no clear leader among their front runners who creates the conditions for close elite eight matchups.
The SEC tournament showed us what madness could be in store for us.
The pandemic has changed the way conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament are seeded. Because the teams did not play the same number of games in each conference, most tournaments were rated by percentage of win. For example, at the SEC tournament, Tennessee was number 3 and Kentucky number 5, even though Kentucky won as many conference games as the Lady Vols and had more wins overall. The result of this seeding system was a tempting matchup for two highly angry contestants – Ole Miss # 11, who came excruciatingly close to Tennessee in the quarterfinals, and Georgia No. 4, who battled South Carolina with a 5-point loss in the championship game .
A similar unpredictability may be on the way with the NCAA tournament, which for the first time uses a true S-curve to set teams: since the games all take place in San Antonio, geographic considerations are ignored and the selection committee creates the bracket , removes a variable and potentially creates more competition.
The 3-point revolution controls many potential outsiders.
In the 2020-21 season, more teams than ever were made an average of at least eight 3-point baskets per game, according to Her Hoop Stats. The 3 Point Revolution has clearly made it into the women’s game, creating a way for medium sized programs to either make the first attempt at making the tournament, like the High Point Panthers (10.2 per game), or to rejuvenate some disgruntled potential, as is the case with the Florida Gulf Coast (11.8 per game) and Stephen F. Austin (8.6 per game). Power 5 schools are no stranger to either – Virginia Tech averages 9.8 per game, thanks in large part to sharp-shooting Senior Guard Aisha Sheppard (3.7 per game), and Arkansas averages 9, 6th Any of these teams could easily live (or die) after the 3.
There are stars everywhere.
Aside from the top teams, women’s college basketball used to have a talent vacuum. The best high school recruits wanted to extend the reign of the dynasties instead of running deep postseason runs with programs that were used to watching the Final Four from home. Not anymore: Charli Collier from Texas and Natasha Mack from the state of Oklahoma, who have the best WNBA prospects, represent the Big 12. The best shooter in the country is Monika Czinano, a junior center in Iowa. It’s hard to turn on a women’s college basketball game without seeing at least one truly compelling female player capable of leading a team to victory – and bringing some madness to March.